Any Volunteers?

Canal restoration, canal preservation, canal societies, volunteers

I’ve been thinking about volunteering. I have been thinking about the act of volunteering and why we do it. These thoughts have been focussed on my own group of acquaintances involved with canal and canal boat restoration but they can equally apply to the millions that give their time energy and money to any other good cause close to their heart.

Why do we do it? We undoubtedly get some fun and satisfaction along the way but underlying these personal benefits is the understanding that if we didn’t do it, it probably wouldn’t get done, and the world would be a poorer place. In the canal world we try to promote and preserve some fundamentally important objects and attitudes to work and life which we think should be important to everybody. It is not national policy so we volunteer to help promote those ideas by digging or talking, learning to build boats or learning to teach. Very often (and very boringly) it is often simply raising money to push professional people into doing what they ought to be doing anyway.

Generally speaking people volunteer to do something different, something worthwhile but different to what they do for a living or what burns up the rest of their life. But after the first satisfying day working with like-minded people one feels less lonely, more part of a group, and more useful. Naturally, as soon as you are part of a team a responsibility to that team develops and the natural tendency is to volunteer one’s existing talents and skills into the job instead of learning new ones. Sensible, of course, in achieving results but less personally enlarging. Suddenly you are doing even more of what you joined to get away from in the first place. Shucks, how did that happen? But nice people and the group enthusiasm carry you along although it is sometimes hard to preserve the original core of well meaning philosophy (or even remember it) as yet another committee meeting looms. Progressively there is that rankling feeling that They ought to be doing what we’re doing for free, that a truly sensible education/preservation/restoration policy should be doing what we are doing, professionally, with fully trained experts.

Canal restoration and preservation societies are all facing an age problem – members getting older or dying off without generating enough younger blood replacements. It is the downside of success in some ways for the truly political battles have been won and there is little left to inspire the youthful radical with canal fervour. In the 1950s and 60s there seemed to be a battle to be fought, a truly fire-in-the-belly campaign to save the canals for everyone, a classless egalitarianism that had echoes of the mass trespass movements of the 1930s. Ramshackle cruisers boated alongside the last of the working boats whilst barely converted old narrow boats took thousands of young people on camping trips that were exploratory and challenging. They have gone now because the canals are open and safe. However, some of that modern victory seems a little hollow – a time of marinas and glossy expensive steel cruisers, of middle class retirement homes and hire boats. We have a thriving holiday and leisure industry, but one with little respect for the history or intrinsic values that fired the enthusiast’s imagination in the mid-twentieth century, and still precious little canal cargo carrying to save the planet.

What is to be done? We could simply hope that our societies will reach an equilibrium with new members joining at the same rate that the old ones die off, but it is likely to be a rather dull retirement-age club. Without fervour, without a vital future policy, people will only join when they feel they can afford the time and the money to take part. Or we can roll over and let it fade away, accept that the general public’s apathy and indifference is indeed right, that in history, in the natural evolution of society the waterways cause has been won, and lost. Or we can re-examine our intentions and original guiding principles and try again, with experience and hindsight. The environment still needs water transport and fully rounded humans need history and aesthetic quality in their lives and I still think canals and old boats can teach all of that in a very condensed form. So in my case it is back to Saturn, an old restored narrow boat now re-launched into a new career as an educational tool and a working museum exhibit, and back to an extraordinarily vital team of friends voluteering huge mounts of time and energy to keeping those principles alive.

But finally, after all the organisation and forward planning, loading the car the previous evening, getting up early, fighting the rush hour traffic, opening the boat and polishing the brass –the kids arrive. We divide them into smaller groups so they can all get a turn at visiting the cabin and us volunteers launch into our scripts and activities. The children listen politely whilst you present them with what you think are the important bits of information but their eyes rove inquisitively elsewhere. Then the questions begin and the game of intellectual tennis begins, batting back the easy ones but often getting floored by the unexpected. Ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, then change groups and start again. A full morning of that and there is no doubt why we’re doing it, a full day and there’s no energy left to even think about it. I just hope there was a future transport minister or arts minister amongst them.

©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere,
June 1st 2008


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